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Helpful tips on how to get someone with Autism to let you brush their hair

Helpful tips on how to get someone with Autism to let you brush their hair

Children with Sensory Issues, Autism, SPD, ADHD, OCD, PDA or other SEN issues can struggle with many aspects of hair brushing and detangling.

Often there is pressure to get somewhere on time. This can cause frustration, anxiety and trigger meltdowns – and that’s just the parents! Some children hide or scream at even the sight of a hairbrush, let alone actually brushing with them. So, why the challenge?

Why don't children with special needs like their hair being brushed?

Sensitive Scalp: It can simply be a more sensitive scalp - what can be mildly annoying to one child can be unbearably painful to another. The feel of the brush bristles in the hair and on the scalp can feel painful for some children even without knots.

Discomfort when Tugging: The tugging of the hair can overwhelm children who can’t regulate their senses, and for some the movement of head and body caused by brushing can lead to feelings of disorientation or discomfort, especially if the child has issues with processing vestibular sensations or is sensitive to movement in general.

Hearing Sensitivity: The sound of the brush moving through the hair can cause discomfort to hearing sensitive children.

Knots in Hair: Teasing knots out in our own hair is never nice, it can be very overwhelming having someone else working on them out of your control.

Stay focused on your child not what other think

From our perspective – we can’t send our child to school looking unkempt or questions will be asked of us. So, we grapple with frustration, exhaustion and feelings of parental incompetence.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard from a parent of a sensory child who is desperately worried about what the neighbours think ‘it honestly sounds like I am murdering her’. Other parents or in laws may roll their eyes thinking kids are over-reacting or we are pandering to them, which is not helpful.

Forget about everyone except you and your child. Consider how this feels to them, do a bit of detective work – ask if they are verbal – but guess if you have to – No one knows your child like you do so trust your instincts.

Remember they are being challenged, not being challenging on purpose. It really helps us if we approach from that perspective, as a team, finding out what can we put in place to make it even just a little easier for them.

Acknowledge that you know this is tricky and uncomfortable and that you want to find a way together to make it feel better.

At a time the child is relaxed and there is no pressure to go anywhere try some light massage or some different brushes in the hair and ask how they feel. See if you can get to the bottom of what the child’s experience is.

Techniques to try with you child to brush their hair

    1. Detangling brushes, sprays and conditioners - Look for specially designed detangling brushes. There are some made to fit inside the hand, and some traditional handle designs, there are also wide toothed combs. We are wanting something that gets the maximum detangling with the minimum contact with the head. A good quality detangling brush and detangle spray can make a huge difference to a sensitive child. Detangle sprays can help with getting brushes or combs through knotty locks, wet or dry. Detangling conditioners, we recommend combing through in the shower or bath while the hair is wet with conditioner and a wet detangling brush. Rinsing the hair straight after will minimise the need for additional brushing if the hair is patted dry.
    2. Letting your child be a part of the process - Let your child choose their own sensory brush/spray/conditioner, favourite colours, smells and feels. It can be worth having more than one option so you can offer a choice. This will help with demand avoidance. In an ideal world we want to be working towards independence and the child taking full control. However, you may need to start by breaking the activity into steps with you completing the majority and letting them finish up – then handing over slightly earlier each time. This won’t be possible for every child, for some it is just too overwhelming to do without support.
    3. Choosing haircuts and styles that are easy to maintain - Lots of people prefer longer hair (or can’t get their child to tolerate hair cutting), but hairstyles that are easy to maintain may be the way forward, so consider starting short and then work towards longer over time.
    4. Making games and activities a part of the hair brushing routine - If children can’t stay still maybe invent a game where you do two brushes and then a quick run around the room or do 5 jumping jacks, then two more, and so on, until it’s all done? Other sensory activities may help the child regulate before they attempt the activity – speak to your OT to get a proper sensory profile completed with recommendations to help with all self care activities.
    5. Focusing on what is comfortable for you child - Apply varying pressure on the scalp or shoulders before brushing – you will need to experiment to see what type of touch is preferred. Wearing a cool cap before, or a head rub, or massagers are all worth a try to see if they assist with desensitisation – again though we would recommend getting assistance from an OT and always take the Childs lead when trying new sensations. We have seen recommendations that during brushing it is good to keep one hand on the top of the head while the other brushes through the hair to give the child a regulatory sensation.
    6. Different types of hair required a different approach - Different types of hair may need differing techniques – in general with straight or gently wavy hair you would start at the top and gently brush down. If hair is very curly or knotted it can often be better to start at the ends and work backwards a section at a time up to the top. Talk through what you are doing and why, or provide visual supports, PECS or social stories that explain what you are doing and why. Create a schedule or have a timer for the activity so there is a clear start and finish.

If you can get communication going and work with them on their issues sensitively, the great news is that the way the brain develops means they can become desensitised over time until it becomes a little better. It may never be a favourite activity but it can definitely improve.

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